Master of the mind

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Master of the mind

Sunday, 15 December 2019 | VISWANATHAN ANAND

Master of the mind

VISWANATHAN ANAND speaks with HARSHIT BISHT about his three-decade long career that includes highs and lows, memorable matches and how did it feel to remain at the top

What’s the first thing that comes in mind when you hear the word chess? For most of the people in India, it is Viswanathan Anand. And that’s so because he’s there at the top since forever. Right from being India’s first Grand Master in the year 1987 to becoming the first Asian, who win the World Chess Championship in 2000 and repeating the same in the year 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2012. It’s been 31 years since he first arrived at the top and today he is still there, as strong as he was then and arguably on the greatest.

He is the only person to have won the world championship in tournament, world and knockout formats, as well as rapid time controls and was the fourth player in history to pass the 2800 ELO mark in FIDE rating list, and occupied number one position for 21 months.

Recently he has come up with his book Mind Master which was launched on December 13, 2019 in which he has discussed about various moments of his long successful career, the challenges he came across, tour of his greatest games and some of the worst losses.

Anand who turned 50 on December 11, 2019 says that writing the book was like a walk down the memory lane. “For me it was a trip down the memory lane. When you write a book, you are forced to think hard and keep your focus clear on what you want to tell people. You have to think of each and every moment that was special and pen it down correctly,” he tells you.

One just can’t share the highlights of the journey, you have to recollect all the moments that happened no matter small or big.

“Remembering each and every thing was interesting because I have realised that when you have a big success you forget all the little difficulties that you faced all through,” he says.

Anand has narrated many stories from his journey in the book. One such is from his match with Kramnik in 2008. “Right before the game was about to start, I had a panic attack. I started angsting because of something that I was not able to recall at that time. I tried calling my trainers but couldn’t connect with any. I didn’t know what to do next. It was then when my wife told me: ‘Nothing can be done now, just forget about it and see what happens.’ I agreed and went ahead with the game. But at the end the game went well and we all celebrated,” he recalls.

One thing that he has learnt from that experience is that everything is unpredictable. One just have to work hard and aim for success. “Luck too plays its part in such games,” he says.

Anand started playing the game at a young age. However, it was his mother who introduced him to the game. “My mother taught me how to play the game. I was just six then. After some time, I joined a chess club and it was one of the most important experiences of my life. Not because I learnt the game there, but because I went there solely to have fun. And that’s what got me interested in the game. It was a natural way to learn,” he tells you.

The major step was when his father  shifted to Philippines for a while and it was  then when he got the chance to get exposed to a lot of chess players and he got engaged with the game like never before.

Anand got his early success in 1983 when he was crowned as the National sub-junior champion with a perfect 9/9 score which was followed by winning several other tournaments and earning International Master (IM) norms in the following years. His rise was such that by the time he was 18, Vishy became India’s first Grand Master in the year 1988.

During his illustrious career, Anand has came across the likes of Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov, Magnus Carlsen to name a few and has developed healthy rivalries many of them.

Playing chess is not everyone’s cup of tea. There are many factors that one has to keep in mind. One of them is to know your competitor in and out. “The main thing was to be familiar with who you are playing, you prepare for your opponent and then you have to assume that they will do the same with you and then it becomes a guessing game,” he tells you.

Try to anticipate what they might do next and how do you will deal with that, along the way you want to do is strengthen your skills, you need to keep practicing it to be ready for any new development.

“The more technically proficient you are, the less easy it is for people to catch your weakness. You need to keep working on your weakness constantly, and also brush up your strong points because anything you don’t keep improving and keep adapting will fall behind,” he says.

Playing in the world championship matches was all about controlling yourself. “In chess, the only thing that matters is who makes the last mistake. So you should do the best you can. It is a constant struggle,” he says.

There were times when things used to get tricky and lead to tension during the match, which used to affect the proceedings. But Anand handled them all. “It’s about how you master your emotions and deal with the constant tension. It’s interesting because all these tension and how you deal with it in chess is probably one of the things that fascinate people outside of chess. How do you deal with all that? That’s why you often say it’s a mind game because in a sense you are really vulnerable with how you feel and the struggle is what I have discussed in the book,” he tells you.

It is not possible for anyone to get success in whatsoever he attempt, there might be cases when the luck favours one, but it cannot happen always and when it comes to sports when a strategy fails it can have immediate impact. In team sport, the other member can cope up for the other one but in individual it gets slightly worse.

“The most important thing is to forget the disappointment and also to forget the happy moments, if there are more games to be played,” he says.

For Anand the most important thing is to focus on the next game. “Whether you are euphoric after a good result or depressed after a bad one, what you have to do is try to keep that aside. Calm yourself down and play the next game as if nothing has happened. That’s the ideal way of dealing with such situations,” he says.

In his book he has highlighted one instance where it was very difficult even to get a flick. Nothing he normally did worked out then. “The whole night I couldn’t sleep. When I came to the working room next day, I found my team had been working the whole night. I was happy that they were putting themselves up for me and I felt a little better. Eventually I forgot what happened and started getting ready for the next game,” he tells you.

Refreshing the memories of his greatest opponents and memorable matches he tells you that when he was young, it got an opportunity  to play against players like Karpov (Anatoly) and Kasparov (Garry). It was a matter of great honour. The early match with Karpov in 1991— my first big candidate match. Also the big World Championship match with Kasparov in 1995 were some of the main highlights of his early career.

“I think in terms of maturity and the results and the way I approached the match, the best match I played in my life was the match against Kramnik (Vladimir) in Bonn (2008). It was simply my biggest success in a match,” he says.

The worst was in Chennai against Magnus Carlsen in 2013.

Vishy also has a say on the current world number one Magnus Carlsen, who has touched FIDE’s highest-ever ELO rating of 2882.

“He is obviously incredibly strong. I got to know him about 17 years ago for the first time in some tournament and it was clear that he had great talent,” he says and tells you that Carlsen has grown suddenly.

“Till 2008, I generally had good results against him. He had this breakthrough in 2009, he started to climb up. He is very good at starting the game. That I am not probably good at, especially slow positions, technical positions he is incredibly strong and it’s been quite difficult to learn how to deal with that,” Anand tells you.

He says that it is difficult to compare Carlsen and himself since he is 20-21 years older than Carlsen. “I met him when he was starting his peak and I was declining and I was trying to learn how to add up to his new approach at a different stage of my career, so it is very difficult to compare,” Anand says.

It is often assumed that in individual sports like shooting or chess there isn’t much pressure unlike cricket or football where the crowd gathered in the stands make it all the more typical to concentrate. But Vishy don’t agree with this and says that it gets all the more difficult to concentrate in the closed room because if you are slightly nervous than it can cost you dear by distracting your focus.

With great matches come great expectation and it becomes tricky to handle that. “It’s a big challenge and all sportsman go through it. The bigger challenge is how you can thrive under pressure, how you deal with expectations because all these things are distracting you from concentrating and focus on what you want. If you start thinking about what comes next, I have found that the moment I start thinking about results rather than the game, generally you are punished,” he tells you.

The constant struggle is to block out the thought of what people are saying about you, what are their expectations and how can you meet that.

It is very easy for an outsider to give an advice about keeping your nerves calm before a tense situation but the person who is going to deal with that, only knows how it is to be like and when it comes to the 8X8 board, it is the most important aspect to mentally prepare yourself so that one doesn’t feel the burden.

“It’s very difficult. In fact it is one of the things that you aim for and almost never succeed completely. But you try your best to find the things that worked for you in the past, you need to develop good understanding for yourselves,” he says and tells you that stress is a sequence of memories, you have positive memories from winning a game, negative experiences of playing badly. You often learn more from failures than you do from success but we constantly see what works for us what doesn’t and try to apply the correct principle in the future.

“In the book, I talk about what to do when suddenly you hit a wall. Nothing seems to work, how do you find way to motivate yourself again? The method I found was, when my own expectation have sunk very low, then I was just free to enjoy chess and not think about what my expected score was and then I felt much better,” he tells you.

“How do you put yourself in the right place against every opponent? “Different oppositions call for different approaches and strategies. So it’s basically about applying past experiences, learning what works and try to apply in future. But it’s very hard to get it right because as we say the same problem will keep on coming but in slightly different versions every time. And so it’s very hard to apply the lesson like that,” Anand tells you.

A rule that Anand abides by is to think what went wrong the last time and modify it. “One such instance mentioned in the book that I found that I would often make a blunder when I got influenced by events before the game. In chess we have time control and move 40 and after that you get an extra hour. So the good chance to take a break. And one of the thing I found is that, there is no better than 40s to get up from the board, go to the players area, just relax for 5 minutes and then come back and think again. So this was very interesting application of the experience I was having, disconnecting the past and current situation,” he tells you. If you are winning on move 30 and then you blundered on move 35 and then you arrive on move 40 and you are slightly worse now. The only thing that matters at the end is that you are worse on 40.

“So, on move 40 if you can go to the players area and get yourself away from the chess board, you try to get used to the new situation and then you come back and tell yourselves that It’s Okay! It doesn’t matter that I was winning before, I need to put it on the back,” he tells you.

One need to read the situation and make the fresh break and that was successful for Anand. “We take inspiration from some negative experience and then try to correct it,” he tells you.

When you are at the highest level of anything it becomes very important for you to maintain that consistency because even a slight dip in form will be enough for people to question your caliber and who knows it better than Anand himself who is just not there at top for more than three decades but also time and again proved that he has got everything in him to be placed right there and proof of which is his World Rapid Chess Championship win in 2017.

Anand tells you the method that he has applied all these years to keep himself motivated for the challenges that came across. “The most important thing is to find what are the circumstances under which, you play best. I found that I learn new things in chess and I played the best when I am enjoying myself and so that is what you aim for,” he says and tells you that you have to enjoy yourself and learn new things.

“One of the problem in rapid and blitz is that you can have these little streaks during the tournament because there are so many games. So if you play 9 blitz games there is enough room to have one good streak and one bad streak in the same day. And it goes very fast so you don’t have time to settle after games and it calls for different approach when you play classical tournaments. But this is not some big long term problem, I try to solve it out,” he says.

But at the end the grandmaster is too a normal human being who wants to relax and take some time out for his family.  “At home, I am like any other normal person. When I am with my family, I just try to relax and have a good time,” he tells you.

For Anand one of the nicest way to recover after bad disappointment is to come back home and play with his son because for a few minutes it takes him into a completely different world.

“It’s important to have hobbies, friends and things that distract you. I have mentioned in the book that the quickest way to forget disappointment is to change your subject. And that is what I try to do,” he tells you.

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